Friday, May 1, 2009

Unexpected Poetry Festival

It's true: sometimes good things happen when we least expect them. After completing a 5-day residency last week with third graders, I thought my school work for this year was done. And I was glad. Let the summer begin. But then on Wednesday, just as I was about to make an emergency run to the mall, the phone rang. It was poet Ed Romond. He was scheduled to do a festival the next day at West Morris Central High School in Chester, NJ. The other poet had unexpectedly become ill and had just canceled. Since the teacher running the festival was tied up in classes, Ed had offered to try to find a substitute poet.

I'm so grateful that I was still home to receive that call. I was free the next day and Chester is within reasonable driving distance, so I quickly said yes. That meant a busy day as I had to quickly put together my materials. It was well worth the effort as the day turned out to be just fantastic!

English teacher David Crews put together a wonderful festival. A genuine gift to his school. I met David a few years ago when he was in a workshop I gave. I remembered the poem he wrote that day as it was very promising. I also knew that he'd posted several of my poems at his contemporary poetry website. But I never expected to be on his campus. And I had no idea that he and some other teachers were actually teaching my poems! What a kick that was. As a result I was sort of "famous" and was greeted with what seemed like excitement. So off to a very good start.

It just got better. Instead of doing the workshops that I usually do when at a high school festival, Ed and I first did a 50-minute Q&A. The questions had been prepared by members of the literary magazine and were thoughtful and interesting. We were asked about how we deal with difficult subjects in poetry, how important revision is, if we write with an audience in mind, the correspondence between head and heart, and so on. For our second session, also 50 minutes, we each read our own poems. For the third and final session, we read favorite poems by other poets and talked a bit about why we were drawn to those poems.

For each of the three sessions, we had a new audience of between 100-150 kids. I thought that would seem like a lot and might create management problems. I need not have worried. There was not one sign of restlessness, no one was doing homework, and no one was chatting it up with neighbors. It was pretty amazing. And I feel sure the level of attention we received was the result of the love of poetry that infuses the English department. The teachers I met genuinely love poetry, attend poetry events, and even write poetry.

While Ed's and my role in the festival was just 3 hours, a lot had gone on before our arrival. A series of poetry workshops and seminars had been conducted throughout the morning by different English teachers. Some of the topics: Poetry for Men, Strip Poetry (With Your Clothes On), Sensing the Image, and What We Love about Like: A Workshop on Similes.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were more schools like this, more English departments like this, more days like this?

The day ended with David's gift to each of us of a cherry tree sapling. Mine is now dreaming of one day going outside and being a big tree among the others.

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